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The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Walk into any K-5 classroom in Illinois’ Rockford Public Schools and there’s one thing you’re guaranteed to see: kids playing with Legos. While it may look like unstructured free time, kids in Rockford are actually hard at work when the Legos are out—building historical homes, constructing ramps and designing amusement park rides.

Lego play is a critical part of the district’s efforts to introduce science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts early, and in an engaging way. In 2018, the district began training educators on how to use special kits from Lego Education to teach STEM skills—and, in the process, concepts like cause and effect and problem solving. This school year, teachers are using Legos to help kids learn concepts from all subject areas, including literacy, history and science. “Just to talk about [STEM concepts] abstractly is difficult at that level,” said Susan Uram, educational technology coordinator for Rockford Public Schools. “But if they can build something…they’re understanding in a concrete way.”

In recent years while reporting on early ed, I’ve seen an influx of districts and communities incorporating STEM learning into the early years. Usually, that’s in response to growing encouragement from early childhood experts and a push for more hands-on forms of learning. Some schools, like the Goddard School, a nationwide network of more than 500 private schools for children ages six weeks to 6-years-old, have created their own STEM curriculum. The network’s science, technology, engineering, arts and math curriculum, The F.L.E.X. Learning Program, emphasizes projects, play and hands-on activities like using recycled materials to build, creating bridges with toothpicks and gumdrops and taking walks to observe the speed of cars as they drive past the school. Other schools are trying to make STEM concepts as common as literacy by talking about a STEM concept in every single lesson, like F.E. Burleson Elementary, which serves students in pre-K through fourth grade, in Alabama.

““Just to talk about [STEM concepts] abstractly is difficult at that level. But if they can build something…they’re understanding in a concrete way.”

Research shows no matter how schools are approaching STEM education, they’re on to something by starting early: kids are capable of learning about STEM at a young age and early exposure and understanding of STEM topics can increase academic achievement, persistence and critical thinking. Many schools also see STEM lessons as a way to prepare students for STEM-heavy jobs that will most likely continue to be in demand when today’s preschoolers enter the workforce. The federal government has also taken notice of the importance of starting early with STEM: A bill signed into law in December by President Trump directs the National Science Foundation to create and expand research and STEM initiatives aimed at young children, as well as to ensure comparable funding for these initiatives.

So what are some of the best ways to introduce STEM early on? Here’s what research says:

  • Let young children work on STEM tasks as part of a group. Some research has found children are more motivated and persist longer on activities when there is a social component.
  • Use children’s interests to choose STEM topics. If children are particularly curious about something they have observed, like the wind, seize on that curiosity to conduct experiments and teach STEM concepts.
  • Ask a lot of questions, like “why,” “what,” and “how” to push students to explain their thinking and search for answers.

For more ideas, check out this 2018 article I wrote that includes ideas for infants and toddlers.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about STEM in early childhood was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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